Thursday, September 1, 2011

The First Prayer in the Continental Congress

On September 6th, the second day of the Continental Congress, Samuel Adams proposed the session be opened with prayer although various Christian sects were present.

“Christian men, who had come together for solemn deliberation in the hour of their extremity, to say there was so wide a difference in their religious belief that they could not, as one man, bow the kneel in prayer to the Almighty, whose aid  and assistance they hoped to obtain.”

Jacob Duché (1738 – 1798) was an Anglican clergyman who was requested by the Continental Congress to open their first session with prayer. The Journals of the Continental Congress clearly declares that the first official act of Congress upon receiving the news of the attack upon Boston by British troops was to open in prayer.
“Tuesday, September 6, 1774. Resolved, That the Rev. Mr. Duché be desired to open the Congress tomorrow morning with prayers, at the Carpenter’s Hall, at 9 o’clock.”

Reverend Jacob Duché read the 35th Psalm, the Psalter for the seventh day of September to the first Continental Congress.

“Plead my cause, Oh, Lord, with them that strive with me, fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of buckler and shield, and rise up for my help. Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who purse me; Say to my soul. “I am your salvation.” Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life; Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.”

On September 7, 1774, the Anglican clergyman proceeded to pray extemporaneously offering the First Prayer in Congress.

“Our Lord, our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of Kings, Lord of Lords, who doest from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon the earth, and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all kingdoms, empires, and governments, look down in mercy, we beseech thee, upon these American states who have fled to Thee from the rod of the Oppressor, and thrown themselves upon Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only upon Thee. 

To Thee have they appealed for the righteousness of their cause. To Thee do they now look up for that countenance and support which Thou alone can give. Take them, therefore, Heavenly Father, under Thy nurturing care. Give them wisdom in council and valor in the field. Defeat the malicious design of our cruel adversaries. Convince them of the unrighteousness of their cause, and if they still persist in their sanguinary purpose, O let the voice of Thine own unerring justice, sounding in their hearts, constrain them to drop their weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle. Be Thou present, O God of Wisdom, and direct the counsel of this Honorable Assembly; enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations; that the scene of blood may be speedily closed, that Order, Harmony and Peace may be effectively restored, and that Truth and Justice, Religion and Piety, prevail and flourish among the people.Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of their minds, shower down on them, and the millions they here represent, such temporal Blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting Glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior, Amen.”

Congress recorded their appreciation to the Reverend Jacob Duché in the Journals of Congress.

“Wednesday, September 7, 1774, 9 o’clock a.m. Agreeable to the resolve of yesterday, the meeting was opened with prayers by the Rev. Mr. Duché. Voted, That the thanks of Congress be given to Mr. Duché…for performing divine Service, and for the excellent prayer, which he composed and delivered on the occasion.”

A placard was produced by the Library of Congress in 1875 that summarized the various reports from the founders concerning the impact the first prayer had on the members of the Continental Congress. That placard declared:

“Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan Patriots of New England, who at that moments had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households. It was believed that Boston had been bombarded and destroyed.”
“They prayed fervently ‘for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston,’ and who can realize the emotion with which they turned imploring to Heaven for Divine Interposition and – ‘It was enough’ says Mr. Adams, ‘to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacific Quakers of Philadelphia.”

On September 7, 1774, John Adams wrote the following letter to his wife Abigail:

“When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because they were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship.
Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his Country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia but had heard that Mr. Duché deserved that character and therefore he moved the Mr. Duché, and Episcopal clergyman might be desired to read Prayers to Congress tomorrow morning. 
The motion was seconded, and passed affirmative. Mr. Randolph, our president, vailed on Mr. Duché, and received for answer, that if his health would permit, he certainly would.
Accordingly, next morning [the Reverend Mr. Duché] appeared with his clerk and in his pontifical, and read several prayers in the established form, and read the collect for the seventh day of September, which was the thirty-fifth Psalm. You must remember, this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston. 
I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duché, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of ever man present. I must confess, I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced. 
Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself [Adams’ personal pastor] never prayed with such fervor, such ardor, such earnestness and pathos, and in language to elegant and sublime, for America, for the Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston, It had an excellent effect upon everybody here. I must beg you to read that Psalm."